There's a missing link in most study of Scripture that solves so many problems in the interpretation of Scripture and makes the location of the ancient path so much simpler. If we think we are ducklings when we are really swans, we just won't be able to see the path rightly.
Yeshua said he was "sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel" (Matt. 15:24). Yet most of his followers after the first century have not been Jewish. So what did he mean?
The problem lies in our tendency to think there is a one-to-one correspondence between "Israel" and the Jews. But by definition the Jews are descendants of Jacob’s son Judah, and thus are only one of twelve tribes of Israel.
When King Solomon's son Rehoboam decided to impose heavier burdens on
his subjects, ten of the tribes seceded, led by Jeroboam, who was from the tribe
of Ephraim. (1 Kings 11-12) So "Ephraim" became "shorthand" for that
Northern Kingdom. Sometimes they were also called the House of Joseph
(Ephraim’s father). They also retained the name Israel. The Southern Kingdom
was called Judah, and it retained the throne of David. Two other tribes stayed
with Judah. In order to "rightly divide the word of truth" we must recognize the
distinction the prophets made thereafter between Judah and Israel. They are
not just poetic synonyms.
YHWH said that He had a purpose in this, and promised to bless Jeroboam if he
remained obedient. But Jeroboam was afraid that if his subjects kept going to
Jerusalem for YHWH's feasts, they might again become loyal to his rival kingdom.
So he set up alternative worship sites, and from there the idolatry grew worse.
By 722 B.C., YHWH had had enough. Hosea describes Ephraim as "mixing
himself with the Gentiles". (7:8) They wanted to be just like every other nation,
rather than His unique treasure. (2 Kgs. 17:8) So they got what they asked for;
their punishment was to actually become Gentiles!
YHWH used the Assyrians to carry these Israelites away into exile and resettle
them elsewhere. Judah also disobeyed and was taken into exile, but repented and
returned to the Promised Land. But the northern tribes assimilated with other
nations and most lost their identity completely. But YHWH never forgot who they
Jacob had prophesied that Ephraim’s descendants would become "the fullness of
the Gentiles". (Gen. 48:19) Does that ring a bell? It shows up again in Romans 11,
when Paul says a partial callousness would remain over Israel "until the fullness
of the Gentiles comes in" (v. 25), but then, "all of Israel"--not just Judah--would be delivered.
Hosea named his third son Jezreel ("Elohim will sow" or "scatter"). He did indeed scatter the Northern Kingdom like seeds. But a sown seed is hidden in the ground for the very purpose of later showing up again to bear much fruit. Amos (9:9) said YHWH would sift these tribes among all the nations, yet He would not
lose track of one kernel. "Joseph" would one day, somehow, be reunited with Judah. (Ezek. 37:15ff) So again, who is Ephraim? Where are they today?
In Jeremiah 31, we see Ephraim slapping himself since he'd thought he was an upright man until it was pointed out that he was really still doing many pagan things. This narrows our identification of Ephraim to apparent “Gentiles” who see themselves as obeying “God”, yet don’t realize that even that name is tainted by paganism. When Ephraim recognizes his error and repents, YHWH says, "Isn’t Ephraim a precious son to Me? It’s those self-serving shepherds who have led him astray! So I’ll provide My own Shepherd." This was always understood to be referring to the Messiah.
One reason his followers were disappointed about his death was that they had thought he would redeem and restore the Kingdom to Israel. (Lk. 24:21; Acts 1:6) Indeed, one reason many Jews don't consider him to be a candidate for Messiah is because he did not bring the lost tribes back.
Or did he?? Let's take a closer look.
Just before his ascension,Yeshua's disciples asked him if this was the time he was going to restore the Kingdom to Israel. (Acts 1:6) Where did they get that idea? That certainly hasn't been a tenet of church doctrine since then! But he had just spent 40 days teaching them, and Isaiah had said that Messiah's main task was to "resurrect the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved ones of Israel." (49:6) So maybe we have not understood his mission the same way his first followers did.
The command regarding the Kinsman Redeemer, illustrated in the Book of Ruth, foreshadowed perfectly this aspect of what Yeshua came to do. His own ancestor, Boaz, paid the way for a relative to recover the lost connection to her heritage.
Two punishments had been assigned to the House of Israel from which they needed redeeming, symbolized by the names of Hosea's sons. (ch. 1) The first was "no mercy", and the second was "not being My people". But He also said, "In the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people', they shall be called 'Sons of the Living Elohim.'" (Hos. 1:10) Can you think of any people from every nation, kindred, tribe, and tongue, who describe themselves as redeemed and are called “sons of Elohim”? (Hint: John 1:12; 1 John 3:2) Whoever fits this description is where we will find Ephraim today.
Paul said all of creation was eager for the time when it would be revealed who these "sons of Elohim" are. (Rom. 8:19) Remember the prodigal’s father, who had one son still at home, looking expectantly for his other son to return? Judah was still safe at home then, but though YHWH had forsaken Ephraim "for a moment", His heart longed to have His "firstborn" back! So He says, "Declare it to the far-off coastlands that He who scattered Israel will regather him and watch over him like a shepherd.”(Jer. 31:10)
This is the context for Yeshua’s identifying himself as the "Good Shepherd". When he said he had other sheep that were "not of this flock" (Judah), he was echoing Ezekiel’s prophecy that there would be one shepherd for both Judah and Israel. (34:23) We have to read the New Testament in light of these promises to regather Ephraim, or we will miss a major theme of why Yeshua came.
Almost every time he mentioned the Gospel, he associated it with the Kingdom, which since Jeroboam had belonged to Ephraim. Being from the House of Judah, he is a king without a kingdom until both houses are back together.
Jacob had prophesied that Ephraim would “grow into a multitude in the midst of the land.” In Hebrew, it really says they would “multiply like fishes”. Fish multiply on land? The only time we ever see this idea again is when Yeshua multiplies the loaves and fishes, near the landlocked Sea of Galilee, and there were 12 basketfuls left over (enough for all 12 tribes)! When he spoke of going as "fishers of men", this was not a new idea; He was alluding to a specific prophecy:
"'Behold, the days are coming, declares YHWH, when it will no longer be said, 'As YHWH lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of Egypt', but rather, 'As YHWH lives, who brought the descendants of Israel from all the lands to which He had driven them.... I will send for many fishermen, and they will fish them out...for My eyes are on all their journeyings..." (Jeremiah 16:16)
So Yeshua did not deny that he had come to restore the kingdom to Israel. All he did was to turn the disciples’ focus toward what turns out to have just been the first step--finding the subjects of the northern Kingdom--his long-lost relatives--and again making them into people worthy to be its citizens. He was sending them out with a dragnet to draw Ephraim back to the covenant they once forsook. For he was that "Kinsman Redeemer" for the prodigal tribes.
When Yeshua paid our ransom "in the fullness of time", Hosea's sentence of "no mercy" was up, and it was only a matter of informing the scattered Israelites that they could come back home. That's what he sent his apostles to do.
Before long, they were celebrating because many were "returning to YHWH from among the Gentiles". Even James, Yeshua's brother, who at first hesitated to allow these supposed Gentiles into the household, later addresses his epistle overtly "to the twelve tribes of Israel who are scattered abroad".
If Ephraim’s seed so mixed with all nations, then many, if not most, of the people who respond to the Gospel may be "Gentiles" only in this secondary sense. Indeed, Paul writes to the new believers as "former Gentiles"! (1 Cor. 12:2; Eph. 2:11)
YHWH had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that people from all nations would be grafted into their seed. I.e., every tribe or clan on earth would, somewhere along the line, intermarry with at least one of Jacob’s offspring. So in the process of seeking them out, many others were afforded the opportunity to join YHWH's people. There had always been a “mixed multitude” from other nations becoming part of the nation of Israel. They are given the same rights as the native-born, as long as they keep the covenant. (Num. 15:15) This extension to total Gentiles was more of an “afterthought”--an added gift to Yeshua, since YHWH said he had earned the right to rule more than just Israel. (Isa. 49:6)
Yet the exception began to be seen as the norm. The focus on bringing Israel back to the covenant they had abandoned was lost in the push to reach every last tribe with what was turning out to be a new religion instead. Eventually all who wished to be part of the institutional church were forced to cut all ties to their Hebraic roots. The other side also gave an ultimatum: to believe that Bar Kochba, not Yeshua, was the Messiah or be put out of the synagogues. So the two houses became separated once again.
But in our day, we have another unique open door. Hosea's other sentence--the concurrent, but longer, one of "not being a people"--is coming to an end.
Like the legends of peasants who discover they are really royalty, we may be amazed to find that we are heirs to a noble lineage after all--again, if we will keep the covenant this time. What is His covenant with Israel? The Torah, which was given to Israel at Mt. Sinai for all her generations. By accepting it, our ancestors obligated us to it as well.
At his last Passover, Yeshua initiated a "New Covenant" (prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31). In Hebrew, it is really a renewal of the same covenant, with a few allowances added for while we make the transition back. But the Covenant is "with the House of Israel and the House of Judah". It cannot be fully in effect until Israel is back together, for it is not with individuals but with a unified nation. So our focus needs to shift from just being saved individuals to again being the people of Israel. Don't pass up this highest of callings! We dare not fail again.